Beside parenting, starting and growing a business is without doubt the hardest job I’ve ever had. There are plenty of similarities of course: late nights, tantrums, constant demands on cash and the ever-present feeling that you’re never quite doing well enough.

But in many ways it’s also the most liberating. In my case, it provided a blank canvas on which I could start experimenting with a different style of organisational development; one based on trust, respect, instinct and interdependence. In short, one that felt more natural and authentic for me as a human being.

I’ve since learnt it’s called regenerative leadership and it’s totally changed my worldview.

At its heart, regenerative leadership seeks to answer the question: what would this organisation look like if we treated it like a living-system, not a machine? What if we applied the learnings of four billion years of evolutionary development to our companies so that they become inherently resilient, nimble and life-affirming? Just like nature.

When I started looking through this lens, I came to appreciate that most businesses are indeed run like machines: people as cogs, managers as operators and systems as user manuals in a clear and linear input -> output relationship. Striving for efficiency, management is characterised by a fear of failure with success measured primarily in numbers and charts as opposed to genuine societal and environmental value. It’s the opposite of life-affirming, it’s soul sapping and I’m convinced it is a key contributor to the many social & environmental messes we find ourselves in now.

Having spent the early part of my career in the organisation-as-machine paradigm – and hating it – I became committed to unleashing the living-being in the business I had been fortunate enough to found.

How did the journey begin?

When I realised that Greenheart, against my better judgment, wanted to grow I found myself at a T-junction: should I put a lid on it, stay solo and manage demand by cranking up my fees? Or should I listen to the universe and let it happen? Well, you try putting a cloche on an oak seedling. It’ll either die or break through its own ceiling pretty quickly.

I kicked off the cloche, drafted the first employment contracts and braced myself.

As the first large corporate clients came in and the team continued to grow, so did the need for systems and processes. IT, data security, time management, etc. all needed bedding in quickly. We had reached the next T-junction: should we a) dust off the traditional management playbook and start drafting linear org charts and policies, or b) do something different but uncertain and higher risk? Well, I think you know the answer to that…

My first call was to Giles Hutchins, one of the key shepherds of the regenerative leadership movement. Our friends and clients at Vivobarefoot had introduced me to his book Regenerative Leadership (co-authored with Laura Storm) and I had inhaled it more or less in one sitting. I reached out, not really expecting a reply, asking for urgent help.

“I have read your and Laura’s book (twice) and am deeply committed to building my own business ecosystem along regenerative lines…I’m at a pretty early stage in my understanding but want the whole team to be aligned from the off.”

That was almost three years ago and Giles has been my, and Greenheart’s, friend, guide and mentor ever since.

I’d be lying if I said the realities of growing a business during economic uncertainty hadn’t at points challenged my regenerative resolve really hard.

As a leader, especially an owner-leader, when you hit turbulence every instinct screams at you to grab hold of the joystick and fight until you’ve regained control. It’s also very tempting to close down the information flow so as not to concern people. When you operate an emergent self-managing system you can’t do any of that without breaking the inherent trust on which you’ve built the culture. Instead, you need to communicate more and trust more, but ensure that you’re providing the support, advice and frameworks for everyone to work to best effect. There is a very blurry line between that and direct top-down management and we definitely don’t always get it right. Equally, once you’ve empowered everyone to pull their weight, they need to do so and that’s not always a given.

Most people outside the business don’t know what you’re talking about – I’ve had a number of conversations this year with senior commercial people and/or prospective partners who just don’t get where we’re coming from. ‘Why are you so obsessed with nature? Where does that fit into the business model? You’ll never sell to a serious corporate client with that attitude.’ In a worst case scenario (e.g. if we’d had to get lifeline funding) we could have been forced to choose between our values and our survival.

Sometimes people inside the business aren’t quite sure what you’re talking about either – this is a new way of working for most people and it requires both support and guidance as they break out of the traditional management paradigm.

Increasingly your team DOES know what you’re talking about – and surrendering into the flow of life takes the sting out of the harsher realities. Example: around springtime we had a discussion about what we were calling the ‘commercial conundrum’ (a slower than expected Q1). We laid out the facts, neatly reduced in a good old fashioned left-brain way, and watched the blank faces stare back from the GoogleMeet screen. Then I put up a slide (below) asking ‘what would nature do’? Blow me down, not only did the faces light up but the ensuing discussion provided both concrete ideas and reassurance to people that we’d find a solution. (Side note: the discussion itself was fascinating but a topic for another chapter. If you’re interested, ‘Teeming’ by Tamsin Woolley-Barker is full of insights on this question.)

Because our style of regenerative leadership encourages collaborative innovation and creativity as normal behaviours, everyone is primed to expect – and deal with – the unexpected. As a result, a bit like a shoal of mackerel turning in sync from a threat, we can move quickly and together. We are naturally agile and this is incredibly helpful during tough times.

Most importantly, the sense of belonging, trust and togetherness that comes from doing things slightly differently is probably the most valuable asset at a time of scarcity. We forage together, always guarding each other’s backs, with the shared priority of keeping the ecosystem healthy.

So my experience so far is that the pros outweigh the cons and the confidence regenerative leadership has given me as an owner-leader has pulled me through some real challenges. 

Thomas Bourne, Founder & Chief Ecosystem Officer, www.greenheartbusiness.com

If you wish to explore Regenerative Leadership further, there is a special deep-dive immersion with Giles Hutchins in the ancient woodlands of Springwood, West Sussex, close to London and airports/trains, Two-day Deep-dive – Thursday 23rd/Friday 24th May – price £800 per person, contact Giles Hutchins via his website for more information: https://gileshutchins.com/

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